Big blue wobbly thing

So I suppose it would be prudent to explain the title. “Big blue wobbly thing” is half of a quote from Black Adder. I shan’t go too far into the story line but the set up is that Black Adder and his dogsbody Baldrick, thinking that they have burnt the manuscript to Doctor Samuel Johnsons Dictionary of the English Language have spent a long night trying to rewrite it. When Baldrick returns to Black Adder the conversation goes like this:

BA: Baldrick, what have you got?

Bck: I’ve done C and D.

BA: Right, let’s have it then.

Bck: Right. Big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in.

BA: What’s that?

Bck: Sea.

BA: Yes. Tiny misunderstanding. Still, my hopes weren’t high. Now and what about D.

Bck: I’m quite pleased with dog.

BA: Yes, and your definition of dog is?

Bck: Not a cat.

BA[sarcastically]: Excellent. Excellent!

As someone obsessed with semantics and specifically lexical semantics, this is not only funny, it is fascinating and most excellent!

The field of semantics, like all other fields of science, must start with a look at what we can see in the world around us, and the semantic research, same as all other research, strives to explain and demystify our world. Though the quest for complete knowledge is a noble one, the problem with linguistics is that as a science it is more elusive than most. If you have a mathematical formula, say, the classic definition of probability, p = Pr{E} = h / n, where E is an event that can happen in h ways out of a total of n possible equally likely ways, this will be the same in China and Peru, Greenland or Mozambique. We’ve come a long way since the days of phlegm and bile, but still today, with all our technology, nobody really knows where language is made in the brain or how. There is no language sediment that we can drill into to look for evidence of, say, vowel change. For all our construction of beautiful laws and rules, the humans use of language at times seems to have destruction and distortion of languages as their only goal.

Another thing about semantics is that it permeates all other fields of linguistic studies, from phonology to literature. Because it is concerned with meaning through language it must look at all aspects of language and its use. While syntax, morphology, or feminist literature in the 1900s can be quite happy in their respective little worlds, dealing only with their own structures and ideas, each of these can be flipped around to reveal the semantic side and semantics can encompass all of these as a part of its theory of meaning. For example the new evolution in icelandic where a simple realis, say, “Ég skil þetta ekki” (I don’t understand this), has taken on a durative form, “Ég er ekki að skilja þetta” (I am not understanding this). This can be analyzed with respect to many factors in the change, like age and education, to produce a map of how the change occurs and how it spreads. But you need the semantic side to see why in particular it happened. There have been some indications that the new form is not only a different form but also has a different meaning, involving a struggle that perhaps has not been resolved. This is also important in in predicting the future of these two forms. Will the latter take over or will they co-exist as two forms with distinct meanings, the new one merely adding a nuance to accomodate an intended meaning.

adogThough it may be difficult, it is therefore advisable to start at the beginning. To look around and observe language in action. To begin in the field of the pre-theoretical. Larson and Segal (1) divide the pre-theoretical field of semantics into three domains. These are facts about the expressions, facts about the connections between expressions and the world, and facts about expressions and the people who produce them, the speakers. To help us to traverse these domains let’s bring along with us A DOG (Image 1).

The first thing we will come across in the realm of expression facts is actual meaning. This is what is necessary to be able to build communication on words. The sentence “Image 1 contains A DOG” is a fact of such meaning. There is an object named Image 1 which has a picture of a dog. The tricky bit however is to figure out how the fact of “Image 1 contains A DOG” relates to the world in or through our minds. What really is the meaning of these words and how do we make it?

For everything in our minds that can be put into words there must be something that corresponds to its atoms. Every concept has a myriad of concepts behind it. Let us take A DOG as an example. The concepts it contains are, among others: animal, four legged, tailed and furry. This is nowhere near enough however and the words ‘a dog’ can produce many different images in peoples heads (Image 2).

adogs

This alone would be complicated enough to grapple with, if it weren’t for the unfortunate fact that people use language too. Thus we have, in the world of expressions, also ambiguity (1a) and anomaly (1b).

1. a) I brought my dog.

As in “I brought my canine” or “I brought a good friend of mine”.

b) The dogs wings grew heavy with light and it sang.

To be able to do this with words there must be a foundational meaning which is extended. One must know the rule to break it, so to speak. We must also pass into the relationship of the words with the world. What do these sentences refer to and how? Are they true or false? We would be tempted to say that in 1a ‘dog’ refers to a certain canine or a certain person, depending on the context, and that 1b is false, since dogs don’t have wings and certainly can’t sing. But not knowing the context makes it impossible to know what is being referred to in 1a in reality, and there certainly are many other realities (albeit fictional ones) where 1b could be true. We are therefore again stuck trying to find the actual meaning of A DOG. Just deciding the semantic traits that constitute A DOG is a huge task, so what becomes of dawg, bitch, mutt, jelly dog, dog breath, pound dog, dog end, dog balls busy, dog kittens, rain dogs, dog snot, dog’s bollocks, and you could go on all night? If there is such a thing as meaning now in a static state, and this is what semantics should contend with, perhaps all we know is this (Image 3):

adogcat

But then again, this is an idea. That could lead us to the semantics of everything. Isn’t it exciting?

I would like to end this little trip with another of Baldricks forays into lexical semantics. This one is from the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth. Waiting for “The Big Push” (WW1) Blackadder and Baldrick, along with Liutennant The Honourable George Colthurst St. Barleigh, are playing I spy.

BA: I spy with my bored little eye, something beginning with T.

Bck: Breakfast!

BA: What?

Bck: My breakfast always begins with tea. Then I have a little sausage, then an egg with some little soldiers.

BA: Baldrick, when I said it begins with T, I was talking about a letter.

Bck: Nah – it never begins with a letter. The postman don’t come till 10.30.

BA: I can’t go on with this. George, take over.

G: All right, sir. Umm… I spy with my little eye something beginning with R.

Bck: Army.

BA: For God’s sake, Baldrick. Army starts with an A. He’s looking for something that starts with an R. Rrrrrrrr!

Bck: Motorbike.

BA: What?

Bck: Well, a motorbike starts with an rrrrrrr rrrrrrr rrrrrr!

BA: Right, right, right. My turn again. What begins with “Come here” and ends in “Ow”?

Bck: I don’t know.

BA: Come here.

[Blackadder punches Baldrick in the face]

Bck: OW!

…and quite honestly. I sometimes feel a little bit like Baldrick. It’s a tricky business, language.

—ö—

References:

“General Hospital”, Blackadder Goes Forth. Perf. Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie. BBC, oct. 26, 1989.

“Ink and Incabability”, Black Adder the Third. perf. Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson. BBC, sept. 24, 1987.

Larson, Richard & Gabriel Segal. Knowledge of Meaning: an Introduction to Semantic Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Urban Dictionary, http://www.urbandictionary.com. Accessed dec. 7, 2012.

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